Efforts are under way locally to promote the drug and alcohol abuse prevention message of Red Ribbon Week on an ongoing basis

by: ALEX BITZ - SADD students left to right; Samantha Dunaway, Azucena Vargas and Megan Highsmith do their part to promote Red Ribbon Week.

Ribbons seem to be everywhere these days.

Yellow ribbons are displayed by loved ones awaiting the return of soldiers serving overseas. Pink ribbons proclaim breast cancer awareness. Blue ribbons declare one’s determination to end child abuse.

In addition, since 1988, millions of Americans have worn red ribbons during the last full week of October to promote an alcohol and drug prevention awareness campaign known as Red Ribbon Week.

“The Red Ribbon Week awareness campaign began following the 1985 kidnapping and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico, and serves as a tribute to the memory of Agent Camarena,” explained drug and alcohol counselor Alex Bitz.

Bitz is also the prevention coordinator with the Crook County Commission on Children and Families, and as part of the Crook County Community Coalition is heading up local Red Ribbon Week activities.

“Red Ribbon Week has become a symbol of support for the DEA’s efforts to reduce the demand for drugs through prevention, education, and awareness. It is also a way for individuals and communities to unite and take a visible stand against alcohol and drug abuse in their community.”

Even though the local schools have participated for a number of years, Bitz said the campaign is not very well known - a situation he intends to change by growing the program beyond one week and a red ribbon. Instead, he hopes to make it a year-long promotion that will involve the community at every step.

“The idea of it is to look at the main events in the community,” he explained. “Instead of just bringing some campaign regarding substance abuse, what are the events that Prineville’s well-known for? What are the main things that people do and are involved with each other? The holidays, the big games, the rodeo, spring vacation, summer vacation.”

According to Bitz, there are long-established, cultural norms for these events — those things people are expected to do. For example, “we always party on holidays,” or “we always do this after the game.”

More often than not, the norms include alcohol consumption by both adults and youth.

“Think about it,” he said. “Is that what you want to do?”

Too often, the parents and other adults don’t take the problem very seriously.

“When I was younger I did . . ., and look at me, I'm fine now,” he offered as an example of what a parent’s attitude can be.

“Let’s take a look at those norms, and see, are they affecting us? Are they affecting the workforce? Do we have enough people we can hire and not have addiction problems?”

Alcohol consumption in Central Oregon is high — for both adults and teens — compared to Oregon as a whole, he said. “Higher than big cities.”

Data from the State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup, for the period 2000 to 2012, bears this out, especially for teens. For example, the percent of eighth-graders who said they drank alcohol on one or more days during the past 30 days (when asked during the study) was 28 percent for Crook County, as opposed to 20 percent statewide. Similarly, 14 percent reported binge drinking during the past 30 days, whereas the statewide rate was eight percent. The behavior of high school juniors — the other teen group tracked — was generally closer to the state average, although still higher in some categories.

“We are living in a more complex world where it becomes more difficult for young people to develop a strong sense of who they are, what they believe in, and what they stand for,” said Bitz. “Substance use during adolescence impairs development and increases the risk of addiction.”

One of the activities planned for this fall is school outreach — especially during high-profile events such as homecoming and dances.

High school members of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) have already gone into the morning assemblies of the elementary and middle schools. They shared their own reasons for staying away from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and encouraged their younger peers to do the same, according to Heather Wiles, SADD’s staff high school advisor. Packets were provided to hand out to each classroom, and included crayons, bracelets, ribbons, tattoos, stickers and more, all promoting Red Ribbon.

Also included were pledges to be drug free, to be taken home and signed by the students and their parents.

Bitz said a number of posters have been produced — on display at several businesses and organizations — that portray both youth and adults expressing support for making wise life choices. Each includes a new logo with the slogan, “your life. your choice. our town.”

The program seems to resonate with what people would like to see, he said.

“People like this for some reason. They just like the idea.”

Wiles is optimistic.

“I think it will be effective because it involves the people of the community doing their everyday activities and pledging their support for a drug free community,” she said.

In the end, it’s all about choices, according to former student Chris Bush in an essay he wrote for Bitz.

“It’s not the fancy red ribbons we pin to our shirts or the laminated pamphlets we get to educate ourselves on this topic that are really going to change our community,” he wrote, “it’s the choices we make.”

“It’s your life, and your choice,” Bitz continued, “but it’s my town, too. Be aware that whatever choices you make are going to affect our town, and your family, and your friends and other people.

“It’s our town. Let’s not let substance abuse define us.”

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